“Exceeds the boundaries of ‘music films’ in impressive and unforgettable ways.”
Here is a surprise. A few months ago, when the trailer for Yesterday was released, reactions stretched from sheer enthusiasm to sheer contempt. Perhaps the fantasy of it all gave some people pause, while the Beatle-worship appealed to the millions who are still steadfastly dedicated to their work. Either way, the project and the talent involved, from Danny Boyle to Richard Curtis to Ed Sheeran, were sure to cause some division. And I am happy to report, though division will likely still occur, Yesterday is both exactly what so many were hoping for, and a remarkably bold move in an unexpected and exciting direction. I recommend it to all.
As high concepts go, this one is quite a stretch. But although Curtis’ approach often suffers from major issues of overly sweet fluff and trite material, he threads the needle here with commendable grace and ingenuity. The plot follows Jack Malik, played with a hugely impressive sense of urgency and personality by Himesh Patel, an untalented songwriter who pushes himself to become a rockstar, even though he knows he probably doesn’t have what it takes. His dedicated best friend, manager, and confidante, Ellie, played by Lily James with her usual charm and magnetism, has much more belief in his talent and future career, and though Curtis is a little heavy-handed in her depiction as so deeply devoted to his success, their relationship is intriguing enough to provide a good setup for the film’s personal side. It quickly becomes something else, however, when the plot kicks in. For reasons unknown, Earth as we know it suddenly has a lapse in reality, and suddenly, the band we all know and love as The Beatles never existed. Only Jack remembers them, which, coupled with his now desperate desire to have some sort of success, quickly leads him to pass their songs off as his own.
The premise, though a little daft-sounding at first, quickly proves two delightful things. Firstly, and most straightforwardly, The Beatles are just brilliant. Boyle, Curtis, and Patel clearly have a blast during the scenes where Jack is frantically trying to remember the lyrics to their immense number of genius songs, which naturally causes the audience to reach into our own memories, because odds are we know the lyrics too. Perhaps Marc Maron was actually spot-on when he said we all have a part of our brains that is preternaturally full of Beatles songs; when we hear them, it’s like we have known them our entire lives, and even semi-fans know the words to a great deal of their work. Yesterday works incredibly well as a heartfelt, loving celebration of these songs, and each performance will likely make you reconnect with The Beatles more and more each time. And yet, this was already clear from the trailer; just hearing a few bars of “Hey Jude” or “Help” or indeed “Yesterday,” no matter the plot, would remind you how great they were. Where Curtis’ script and Boyle’s crafty direction elevate the premise, however, is in the way they explore the wider implications.
This is the second of the film’s proposals: we are remarkably connected by our knowledge of The Beatles. There really is no comparable group that can claim the influence they have; to depict a world without the single most unifying musicians in history is a frankly inspired way to remind us what true cultural connection means. Sure, as is often the case with Curtis, there are a few overtly saccharine elements to Yesterday that elicit more eye-rolls than inspiration. Jack’s endlessly supportive friends and the relative ease with which he ascends to pop stardom is all played so neatly it feels too squeaky-clean at times. But I was impressed with the edge Curtis works in as well, and how subtly he does it; there is some remarkably bold criticism and brutal ribbing of modern culture to be found here.
For while Yesterday celebrates the inimitable genius of these past masters, the film also considers the modern state of the music industry. Many of the film’s most hilarious (and rather poignant) jabs come when a predatory manager, played with comic ferocity by Kate McKinnon, callously orders Jack around, telling him what he has to do to become a star these days. Of course it’s all soulless, horrifically shallow things, that completely ignore and debase the charm and depth of the music to make money (which shouldn’t be a surprise to those who follow our biggest pop stars’ lives) but here Boyle and Curtis deliver a fascinating argument for why the dominance of this approach is so sad. The most puzzling element of this argument is the involvement of one of the worst offenders in this regard: Ed Sheeran. Sheeran, playing himself with an impressively game attitude, befriends Jack but also clearly resents that the music Jack plays is infinitely better than what he can do, and what he has made millions doing. When “Shape of You” comes on a few minutes after Jack sings one of the most beautiful songs of all time, “In My Life,” the effect is not just amusing but also rather revolting. How could such a dithering song be so popular when we used to have it so much better?
My one serious criticism of the musical approach is that the film shies away from this very argument when it is in danger of becoming too critical. In one rather serious sequence late on, as Lily and Jack have more serious conversations about their attraction to one another, a Sheeran song that sounds like burning garbage plays, seemingly as if it is a genuinely sensual or compelling song. This is a bizarre moment that lets down the film’s otherwise convincing dedication to exalting music that clearly means something — every other music cue has a wealth of interpretations that will likely exceed your expectations of what could have been a staid and obvious love-in of a movie. Indeed altogether, Yesterday does not feel like it gets finished saying what it was trying to say about music, culture, fame, and honesty, and privileges Jack’s storyline with Ellie over the wider issues slightly too much. Thankfully, Patel and James are lovely to watch; with lesser actors, the romance between Jack and Ellie could easily become an infuriatingly distracting side plot that detracts from the more fascinating elements of cultural criticism; as it stands, their chemistry makes up for the distraction for the most part.
Though such elements and a few other stylistic oddities keep the film from being truly great, there are some moments that prove this film is a cut above what its critics expected. I will not spoil a thing, as during one of these exemplary scenes in particular, I instantly felt deeply grateful I had not known what would come next, then incredibly moved. This is certainly the most moving moment of the EIFF for me so far, and I applaud the team behind this film for including it and dwelling in it with such grace and bravery. Let’s just say the legacy of The Beatles is explored in mature, intelligent, and unpredictable ways, and I found even more appreciation for their impact on the world as a result.
This is a delightful film, and though it is not perfect, and could have been improved with a little more bombast here and there and a little less Curtis cuteness, it is undoubtedly an entertaining and outstandingly crafted piece. When it was announced, I myself was more enthusiastic about this than I was skeptical; I have always loved and admired The Beatles, and expected a fun but light jukebox trip to celebrate how funky they were. But Boyle and Curtis, helped along by deft performances by Patel and James, as well as some other assorted cameos and surprises, have produced a wonderful thing that exceeds the boundaries of ‘music films’ in impressive and unforgettable ways. I was very impressed; see it, and I hope you will be too. If you’ll pardon the saccharine conclusion: remember to let it into your heart.
Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller